The Depressing Comments of Justice Scalia on African-American Students

, director, Center for Science & Democracy | December 10, 2015, 10:24 am EST
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I spent a good part of my life in academia as well as government science laboratories and other science institutions. So I was dismayed, to say the least, to read comments by Justice Scalia during yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing concerning minority students and black scientists in particular. From the court transcript:

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

Photo: Stephen Masker

There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to—get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less—a slower track, where they do well. One of—one of the briefs pointed out that—that most of the—most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas…

They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re—that they’re being pushed ahead in—in classes that are too—too fast for them.

I am sure there are people who “contend” such things.  But one of them should not be a Supreme Court justice. Here are my observations in brief, from my student days in three universities, my teaching appointments in two, as well as my time as an academic dean:

  • It may be true that many black scientists, as well as scientists of every race and ethnicity, do not obtain their education from schools as “selective” as University of Texas (a more selective university). As with many professions, scientists come from all types of institutions. If on the other hand, Justice Scalia was referring to the network of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) around the country that have fostered a vast number of outstanding scientists, it is wrong to label these schools as “less demanding” or “slower-track”. Many outstanding students choose these institutions because they are welcoming for students of color, while many predominantly white institutions are not. This is a problem of persistent racism, not lack of ability.
  • Some students do very well when challenged and pushed very hard. Others need different types of mentoring. I have never observed that race, ethnicity, gender or any other identifiable feature determines the type of mentoring that is best. Mentoring requires connecting, not just pushing.
  • The pace of learning does vary among individuals and that does not relate to success as far as I can see. Nor is the pace of learning constant through one’s education. So to determine a priori that an entire class or race of people learn at a different pace is nonsensical.
  • Diversity does matter in the classroom and every other part of society—our workplaces, government institutions, the military, and so on. We are all stronger when we hear from different perspectives and experiences, not just different opinions.

Justice Scalia is just plain wrong.

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Fortunately, the lawyer for the University of Texas got it right in his response:

This Court heard and rejected that argument, with respect, Justice Scalia, in the Grutter case, a case that our opponents haven’t asked this Court to overrule. If you look at the academic performance of holistic minority admits versus the top 10 percent admits, over time, they—they fare better.

And, frankly, I don’t think the solution to the problems with student body diversity can be to set up a system in which not only are minorities going to separate schools, they’re going to inferior schools. I think what experience shows, at Texas, California, and Michigan, is that now is not the time and this is not the case to roll back student body diversity in America.

If you’re on Twitter, check out are some of the scientist voices who are spotlighting this issue this on social media, such as Dr. Isler,  Dr. Washington, and via the hashtag #BlackandSTEM.

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